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Fossil Strengthens Dinosaur-Bird Link-Scientists
By Patricia ReaneyLONDON (Reuters) - A 130 million-year-old newly discovered fossil of a small meat-eating dinosaur found in China is further proof of the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, scientists say.``This animal is not a direct ancestor to birds but it is a very close cousin. It is from a group called troodontids which is closely related to birds,'' Peter Makovicky of the Field Museum in Chicago said on Wednesday.The new dinosaur, called Sinovenator changii, was probably feathered and is almost the same age as the oldest known bird Archaeopteryx.``The similarities in the skeleton between animals like Sinovenator and Archaeopteryx are very striking,''said Makovicky.Sinovenator was a two-legged predator like the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex but it was the size of a large chicken with a skeleton less than three feet (one meter) long.It had a bird-like shoulder joint, a wishbone and a pelvic bone that points backward, similar to modern birds and was fo! un! ! d in the fossil beds in northeastern China's Liaoning Province, an area that has yielded other important fossils.``It demonstrates that major structural modification toward birds occurred much earlier in the evolutionary process than previously thought,'' said Makovicky, who reported the findings in the science journal Nature.Paleontologists have been strongly divided over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs. But Makovicky, who co-authored the Nature report with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said the dinosaur fossil should resolve the issue.``These findings help counter, once and for all, the position of paleontologists who argue that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs,'' he said.EVOLUTIONARY TREEScientists weren't sure exactly where troodontids were placed in the evolutionary tree because they had features that are present in birds and others found in different dinosaur groups.Sinovenator! w! ! ill help eliminate some of the confusion, said Makovicky, adding that the fossil also cuts the time gap between the appearance of birds and dinosaurs that are closely related to them.``The discovery of Sinovenator is important because it is the earliest troodontid dinosaur yet discovered,'' said Dr. Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History.``It is very close to the age of Archaeopteryx. This means that any perceived problem about differences in age between the origin of birds and the occurrence of small bird-like theropods disappears,'' he added in a statement.Theropod dinosaurs, two legged predators such as Sinovenator, and birds have more than 100 similar anatomical features including a wishbone, swiveling wrists and three forward pointing toes.``Our study suggests that dromaeosaurs (swift running theropods) and troodontids are each others' closest relatives and that those two groups share a close common ancestor with birds,'' said Makovicky.
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